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Legends emerged in this alternate baseball universe and author Scott Simkus sets out to share their stories and use a critical lens to separate fact from fiction. Written in a gritty prose style, Outsider Baseball combines meticulous research with modern analytics, opening the door to an unforgettable funhouse of baseball history.
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The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950
By Scott Simkus
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Scott Simkus
All rights reserved.
THE CEDAR RAPIDS BASEBALL BUNKER
Five of us Hunkered inside the musty cellar of a creaky frame house in downtown Cedar Rapids. Four white guys and an elderly black man were sitting around a wobbly card table in the middle of the space. On the limestone walls, hung haphazardly, were framed black-and-white snapshots of forgotten ballplayers throwing, running, and swinging at pitches in ballparks that no longer existed. Yellowed newspaper clippings, framed as well, bore witness to triumphs and defeats of bygone days, before the passage of time wreaked its unforgiving havoc. Family photos — personal stuff — were mixed in with all the baseball artifacts, evidence of a full, active life.
And eventually, my bladder couldn't take it anymore. We had been there a couple hours, and I was going to burst.
Our hosts had been nothing if not congenial, loading us up with bottled water, soda pop, and good cheer. I needed to piss like a racehorse. In the corner of the cellar was a little bathroom, not quite large enough for a human being, really, but it would suffice. With the door wide open (it couldn't be shut completely) I took care of my business, eavesdropping as the conversation continued. Earlier in the morning, the five of us were complete strangers, but now we were the best of buddies. Swapping stories about Tiger Woods's sexual conquests, peeing in front of one another, talking baseball. There wasn't anything off-limits here in the baseball bunker.
Everybody got up, moving around the tight quarters, stretching their legs. Everybody except the black gentleman, who remained at the table, holding court, spinning yarns. After years of playing baseball and football, his legs bugged the hell out of him, and he preferred to sit. A photographer from a local paper was there, trying to find some decent lighting, plus a reporter who'd flown in from Los Angeles, the black man's business agent, and me.
The home owner's name was Arthur David Pennington, and he was eighty-six years old at the time. He'd been nicknamed "Superman" when just a boy, back in Arkansas, and the moniker stuck with him throughout his life. His mother had tagged him with the label after she'd happened upon the teenage Arthur lifting some car tires without any assistance. He'd grow to be 5'11", 185 pounds, wiry and strong with huge, powerful hands. After becoming a professional baseball player, he'd muscle up on a fastball, lining a shot into Comiskey Park's upper deck. On the wall in the basement was a photograph commemorating the blow. It had a little arrow marking the spot where the ball landed.
We had all convened at Superman's house on a cold December morning as part of a press junket, promoting the Negro league board game and computer simulation product released by the Strat-O-Matic Game Company in New York. I'd been the lead consultant on the project, which meant scouring over a couple thousand box scores, tabulating statistics, and untangling mysteries about league quality and ballpark effects. Strat-O-Matic wanted the most realistic product possible, and although we were only researching one hundred players, this still required a couple years worth of work. Researching blackball details (blackball is now commonly accepted shorthand for "Negro leagues" and "independent African American baseball") from the days before baseball was integrated, was a tough row to hoe.
Pennington, it turns out, was the only man still with us from the set. The others — Cool Papa Bell, Turkey Stearnes, Martin Dihigo, all Hall of Famers — were long gone. The reporter, fishing for a sound bite, asked Superman what it felt like to be the only one still around. Did he feel any special responsibility, speaking on behalf of these legends?
The newspaperman was probably looking for something heartfelt and inspirational, along the lines of "what an honor it was to represent these legendary African American athletes" and how he "hopes nobody forgets the unspeakable hardships these men endured during their careers." But Pennington surprised everybody in the bunker with the curveball.
"A lot of those guys drank too much, man."
"I guess the reason I'm still here," Pennington said, as he autographed a couple trading cards on the wobbly table, "is because I didn't smoke or drink. A lot of these fellas burned the candle at both ends, and my only vice, really, was women."
We all laughed.
The photographer snapped a couple photos.
Superman was just happy to be here among the living.
The chatter quickly drifted back to baseball.
* * *
Art Pennington was born on May 18, 1923, in Memphis, Tennessee. At a very young age his parents returned to their native Arkansas (his older brother and both his parents had been born there), settling in the resort community of Hot Springs. His father, Harry, worked as an elevator man at a local medical building, while his mother, Pearl, took care of their three small children.
It was a happy childhood, with grandparents nearby, and much of Art's time was filled with school and sports. Under his father's tutelage, he became a standout ballplayer, raising eyebrows by the time he was in high school. One March morning, a gentleman showed up on the Pennington's front porch, hat in hand. Wanted to speak with the teenage boy's parents. Said his name was Jim Taylor, and he had a job offer for the youngster.
The visitor explained he was the manager of a baseball team called the Chicago American Giants, which played in the Negro American League (NAL), up north. Wanted to see if Art, who was not only a diamond star but had also been named to an all-state high school football team in Arkansas, wanted to try his hand at professional athletics.
"My mother didn't want me to go," Pennington explained to us in the bunker, nearly seventy years later. "But Jim Taylor kept working on her, insisting he'd keep me under his wing, as if I was his own son."
Taylor was more widely known around the country as "Candy Jim," and he'd already cut a wide swath through the blackball ranks, with a professional career dating back to 1903. At fifty-six years of age, Candy Jim had either played with (or against) or managed virtually every great African American and Cuban ballplayer during the first half of the twentieth century. Plus, he'd participated in a number of exhibition games versus white major and minor league stars over the years. He knew talent when he saw it.
Candy Jim pulled a roll of bills out of his pants pocket and peeled off $150 for Pearl Pennington, which according to Art "was more money than she'd ever seen at one time in her entire life." When Art's mother agreed to let her son leave with Taylor for a trial with his ballclub, the graying manager peeled off another $100 and stuffed it in the kid's shirt pocket. He was on his way to the black majors.
"He was true to his word, treating me like a son," Superman remembered with a smile. "In fact, I always called him Uncle Jim. He was never Candy to me, he was Uncle."
On an end table upstairs, above the bunker, was another black -and-white photo — a formal portrait — of Jim Taylor, Art Pennington, and Pearl, all dressed in their Sunday best. It was obviously one of the most cherished personal effects in the home.
* * *
Although Pennington played parts of ten seasons in the Negro American League, all of them with Chicago, his baseball stories spanned two decades, bouncing from one corner of the Western Hemisphere to the other. He played ball in Venezuela, Cuba, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. He played minor league baseball, after integration, in California, Florida, Oregon, and Iowa. He played semipro ball in North Dakota.
Superman hit a home run off an aging Dizzy Dean in an exhibition game, and batted against a young Whitey Ford. He caught fly balls hit by Josh Gibson, Roger Maris, Luis Aparicio, Buck Leonard, and Whitey Herzog. He played in two East-West All-Star games, struck out against Satchel Paige, and once topped Harvey Kuenn by nine points, winning a minor league batting championship.
He won a $100 prize for clubbing the longest home run in Manitoba-Dakota League history (a 480-footer in the mid-1950s) and easily beat future New York Yankee Elston Howard during a long-distance throwing contest held at old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.
He got involved in some wild parties, south of the border, with a teammate named Wild Bill Wright. The details of these escapades are left to your imagination.
During his career, in and outside of organized baseball, Pennington is credited with single-season batting averages of .370, .359, .357, .349 (twice), .348, .345, .339, and .329. He played eight positions during the course of his career. In 1945, he stole 18 bases in the 70-game NAL season, second only to Sam "the Jet" Jethroe, who would later lead the American League in steals, twice.
After Pennington's career, he worked the railroad for a couple years, ran a popular night club in Cedar Rapids, and landed a day job with Rockwell Collins, which involved a cushy factory position during business hours and playing first base for the company ballclub at night. He had several children and five wives (not all at once) and survived a catastrophic flood that nearly wiped out his house and all of his baseball memorabilia in June 2008.
About the only thing Arthur David Pennington never really had an opportunity to do in his life was play in a white major league game. That phone call never came.
* * *
There were five of us inside the baseball bunker. Four white dudes and a black man, and the moment of truth was upon us. We'd formed a semicircle around Art, tape recorders in hand, camera at the ready, notepads out. It was time to sink him with the big question, the $64,000 whopper.
Why don't you think you ever got a chance to play in the majors?
"Oh, I don't know for sure." Pennington stroked his jet black goatee, pondering the question. With the help of good genes, clean living, and some Grecian Formula, Superman looked at least twenty years younger than his age. And his mind was sharper than a needle. "I always thought it was because my wife was white. That type of situation didn't sit too well with folks back then. I remember bumping into Luke Easter at spring training one year in California, and we talked about that stuff." His first wife, the woman he was married to for more than ten years — during the bulk of his prime as a ballplayer — was a light-skinned Latina he'd met while playing for the Puebla Angels in the Mexican League.
"Man, she was beautiful."
When Pennington was signed by Portland in the Pacific Coast League, he reported to the team hotel, where he and his wife were denied a room. "I called the owner of the club and said 'Hey, what's going on here?' The man also happened to own the hotel, and he talked to the front-desk clerk, straightening everything out."
Art figured his age conspired against him as well. He was already twenty-nine years old when he played his first full season in the low minors (batting .349 with 20 home runs for Keokuk in the Three-I League). "We [the former Negro leaguers] helped put fans in the seats in the minors, but the big-league clubs were looking for younger guys."
Later on, I asked Art Pennington how good the Negro leagues were, in terms of talent. At Strat-O-Matic, this was really the biggest issue we had to contend with, trying to create a simulation product that could be accurately blended with the white major leagues.
"It was like a third major league, man," he replied, with zero hesitation. "When I got to the white minor leagues, it was easy for me."CHAPTER 2
BASEBALL'S ROSETTA STONE
Table 2.1 Shows How Major league teams fared in exhibition games versus various minor league teams from 1901 to 1950. I've spent five years gathering these figures and categorizing them by organized baseball's classification system. These data do not cover every exhibition game ever played, but it's a meaningful sample, larger in size and scope than anything previously published.
Right off the bat, unmistakable patterns emerge. The major league teams fared better against the lower minor league teams, which is exactly what our baseball instincts would expect. And when they played against the older, more experienced minor leaguers at the Double-A and Triple-A level, their winning percentage drops. This, too, is what one would expect to discover.
Now, let's take a look at another table of major league exhibition games. Table 2.2 pits the big dogs against college, semipro, military, and Negro league teams. The military teams are those from World War I and II during the war years. Those military clubs were usually loaded with men who had major and minor league experience. And again, this isn't a complete list, but it is the most comprehensive one ever published.
College was clearly an easier opponent than any of the professional ranks in table 2.1. This also makes sense, as the rosters consisted of young kids, most of whom were not really blessed with anything approaching big-league ability. But the semipros? In more than eight hundred games versus major league teams, the semipros seem to be a tougher competitor than the lowest of the minor leagues. That's a little surprising. And military teams? They were almost as tough as Triple-A minor league clubs, but considering their rosters included guys like Johnny Mize, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams, this isn't really earth-shattering.
Which brings us to the Negro league teams. The white major leaguers — the highest level of professional baseball in the world — had a losing record versus the black teams. Historians have known this for quite some time, and there are several logical explanations. We'll explore this question from a couple of angles, using a couple of tools, throughout the book. But for now — and you'll have to take this at face value — you should know that the Negro league teams often added two or three stars from other clubs to fortify their rosters when playing white big-league teams and that the big leaguers were usually undermanned by two or three, filling in with Triple-A-caliber guys, or semipros, or using pitchers in the outfield or at first base during these games. Not to take too much away from the black clubs, because they were outstanding, but the way those particular matchups occurred skewers the results a touch.
Now for the final table, Table 2.3, which combines all levels of competition. The major league competition is listed in descending order, from most difficult to least difficult. We've also added in the average runs scored, for and against, for those readers who enjoy all the gory little details.
We're going to revisit these tables later in the book; they're not just window dressing. In fact, these tables are going to be important just a couple chapters after this one, when we introduce the STARS system. I've collected nearly four thousand games and categorized them by level to illustrate something most baseball fans probably take for granted: Major League Baseball is, and probably always was, the best brand going, with the exception of the Negro leagues. There are easier ways to do this — shortcuts — such as examining the statistical track records of players who moved from the minor leagues to the major leagues, but I deliberately chose the long form because it shows us things other methods overlook. Getting a quick understanding of where the Negro league, white semipro, and military teams fit into the hierarchy helps guide us to where we'll cast our net as we look for hidden talent.CHAPTER 3
THE RISE OF THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
Here is a brief, incomplete (and possibly incorrect) history of baseball before Ad 1900.
2000 Bc — Two boys are playing along the shore of the river Nile in Egypt. One lad tosses a round stone, and the other swings at it with a wooden stick, whistling a line drive into the water. The next pitch is a fast one, up and in. Both benches empty, requiring an umpire to restore order before play resumes.
Ad 1744 — Children in Great Britain play a game called "rounders," involving a bat, ball, and several posts, which serve the same function as today's bases. The game is actually referred to as "base ball" in England's Little Pretty Pocket-Book, printed in 1828. This little diversion drifts over the pond and becomes popular here in the United States. It will later be determined to have nothing whatsoever to do with the evolution of the distinctly American game of baseball.
1791 — No joke here: the first reference to "base ball" in the United States was a local ordinance prohibiting the play of such a game near the meeting house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The newly constructed building included many expensive windows, and the preference was that they not get shattered by wayward hits and/or throws.
Excerpted from Outsider Baseball by Scott Simkus. Copyright © 2014 Scott Simkus. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 The Cedar Rapids Baseball Bunker 7
2 Baseball's Rosetta Stone 13
3 The Rise of the National League 16
4 Ulysses 24
5 Baseball, Decoded 30
6 The Starry-Eyed Union Association 39
7 A League of their Own 41
8 Inherit the Wind 45
9 Sorry, Charlie 47
10 Victorian Fact or Fiction 62
11 Any Given Sunday 70
12 If You Can't Beat 'Em, Steal 'EM 77
13 Fugitives and Refugees 87
14 1911 Minneapolis Millers 96
15 Mono Amarillo 107
16 Bloomers and Bloopers 116
17 Muster Roll for 1914 120
18 Tesreau's Bears 127
19 Negro National League 133
20 Continental Divide 138
21 Fear of a Black Planet 145
22 Stranger Than Fikkktion 151
23 Hot Corner in the Jazz Age 159
24 The (Almost) Real Roy Hobbs 162
25 Jimmy Clinton 168
26 Big Bang Theory 178
27 Armageddon All-Stars 185
28 The Other Jackie 197
29 1934 204
30 Fastballs 216
31 Speed Trap 227
32 The Million-Dollar Arm 238
33 1943: The World Was Burning 246
34 Luke: 274 258
35 Rosetta Stone (Pt. 2) 265
36 Satch 268
37 The Scarlet Numbers 274
Bibliographical Note 291